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Telcos vie to outfit 4G coverage throughout entire country

As mobile data penetration deepens and rural areas gain access to smartphones, Cambodia’s telecommunications giants are investing heavily to expand quality service across the Kingdom, albeit at the risk of high capital costs into the latest technology and shoring up data infrastructure.

While traditional hubs of business and commerce, such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang have long enjoyed reliable 4G coverage, more distant areas have been plagued by a lack of quality services and patchy coverage.

Royal Group-owned Cellcard announced earlier this month that it would roll out nationwide 4G service next year with an investment capital of $200 million backed by one of Cambodia’s largest conglomerates.

Ian Watson, CEO of Cellcard, admitted that while the company has been slow in pushing out nationwide 4G coverage, it was a deliberate decision to wait until all the infrastructure was in place to optimize the network’s capabilities.

“We purposely delayed the rollout of 4G because we wanted a very measured expansion of our data network,” he said, adding that the infrastructure would be backed up by Cellcard’s sister company, Ezecom, which is set to debut its first submarine cable during the first quarter of next year.

“This is why in the first six months of next year we will roll out Cambodia’s largest data network. And it will be by far the biggest with the deepest coverage with the fastest speeds,” he claimed.

The expansion would add another 120 data sites to its existing 2,500 data sites, while optimizing the network with costly technology.

“The equipment for each additional network site can cost around $50,000 to $80,000 per site. But luckily, since we have a legacy network, it is just a matter of upgrading to make sure we are at the forefront,” he said.

While Watson had little doubt that it would soon be the market leader in terms of quality nationwide 4G coverage, he dismissed concerns over a timeline for a return on investment.

“We are not measuring the company on a regular return on investment scenario, because expanding is what is needed to survive in the competitive telco market,” he said.

Thomas Hundt, CEO of telco Smart Axiata, a company that government records show has three times the subscriber base of Cellcard, said the technological aspects of a nationwide 4G rollout are complex and need to be managed properly.

“From a technology perspective, deploying a 4G network is a game changer in network topology,” he said. But, he added that simply deploying more data sites was not the only difficulty.

“The bigger problem that is currently limiting the rollout to every corner of the country is the unavailability of the right spectrum, in particular the 700MHz spectrum as it is still assigned to the television broadcasters,” he said.

“The government, together with all stakeholders such as the TV stations has to work out a migration plan … at least faster than the currently anticipated timeframe of 2018 or even later,” he said.

Nevertheless, he doubted Cellcard’s claims that it would trump the market in terms of quality.

“Smart [will] not stop rolling out its 4G network. Rather, we will further accelerate it. More than 55 percent of all Smart base stations are equipped with 4G LTE,” he said, adding that its network coverage was “multiple times” bigger than any of its competitors.

Currently, Smart operates 2,100 towers with some using carrier aggregation technology that combines spectrum bands and can deliver speeds of up to 200 megabytes per second.

“We are not afraid of competition,” he said. “Competition per se is good, and good for the consumers we ultimately work for, but it is also good for us as a company as competition is one of the key motivational factors to become better and better from day to day.”

He added that while the company does not intend to announce massive investment numbers that may or may not be viable ,“as some players in the market do”, the company will continue a stable investment plan.

“This year we have invested $75 million, last year more than $70 million and next year closer to $80 million,” Hundt said. “And we will keep innovating [by] introducing new services to our customers.”

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